Obama's Budget Knife Yields Modest Trims

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By Lori Montgomery and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 7, 2009

President Obama has said for weeks that his staff is scouring the federal budget, "line by line," for savings. Today, they will release the results: a plan to trim 121 programs by $17 billion, a tiny fraction of next year's $3.4 trillion budget.

The plan is less ambitious than the hit list former president George W. Bush produced last year, targeting 151 programs for $34 billion in savings. And like most of the cuts Bush sought, congressional sources and independent budget analysts yesterday predicted that Obama's, too, would be a tough sell.

"Even if you got all of those things, it would be saving pennies, not dollars. And you're not going to begin to get all of them," said Isabel Sawhill, a Brookings Institution economist who waged her own battles with Congress as a senior official in the Clinton White House budget office. "This is a good government exercise without much prospect of putting a significant dent in spending."

Administration officials defended their approach, saying the list of program reductions and terminations is just the start of a broader effort to cut spending and rein in a skyrocketing budget deficit, which is projected to approach $1.7 trillion this year. They also noted that the list does not include more than $300 billion in savings Obama proposes to squeeze from federal health programs and use to finance an expansion of coverage for the uninsured.

"This is an important first step, but it's not the end of the process. We will continue to look for additional savings," said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the list of cuts had not been officially released. "You have not heard everything to be said on this topic from us."

The president has already scored a victory on the budget. Congress last week decisively approved his request to devote billions of dollars in new spending to health care, energy and education in the fiscal year that begins in October. But that plan depends in part on the administration's ability to identify budget cuts elsewhere. The document being released today details some of those savings.

The relatively short list of proposed program cuts quickly drew fire from Republicans who learned of them yesterday.

"While we appreciate the newfound attention to saving taxpayer dollars from this administration, we respectfully suggest that we should do far more," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said.

Full details of the proposed cuts will not be released until this morning. But in separate briefings with congressional Democrats and reporters, administration officials said the proposed savings were evenly split between defense and nondefense programs, and that many of the most significant reductions had already been revealed by the president or by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

They also said the majority of the reductions were new targets not previously identified by the Bush administration. But the two lists clearly have some overlap.

For example, congressional sources said Obama is proposing to eliminate a program that reimburses states and localities for holding suspected criminals who turn out to be in the country illegally. Created in 1994, the program was repeatedly targeted by Bush officials, who argued that it is ineffective. But Congress restored funding for the program because it was popular with state and local officials. The program handed out $400 million last year.

Administration officials said Obama also wants to do away with Even Start, a program created in the late 1980s to promote literacy for young children and their parents. Starting in 2005, Bush tried annually to persuade Congress to eliminate the program. Lawmakers gradually reduced funding from $247 million to $66 million, but never proved willing to eliminate it.


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